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Black Static #40 (Magazine)

Cover art:

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Black Static #40 (Magazine)Edited by Andy Cox

Published by TTA Press


Issue 40 of Black Static sees most of its fiction take the form of short, sharp shocks in anticipation of the main centrepiece – Paul Meloy’s imaginatively expansive ‘Reclamation Yard’. Before that, however, we’re given articles by Stephen Volk and Lynda E. Rucker that both prove as astute as ever, Volk’s focusing on his experiences as a writer on film and television productions (and the inherent awkwardness, but ongoing reward, of being involved throughout the whole process) and Rucker’s taking a brief look at the encroaching into the mainstream of darker, more genre-tinged material (her approach fueled primarily by the success of television’s ‘True Detective’). At this stage, it seems almost impossible to read a column by Rucker that doesn’t pave the way for some energetic discussion, and that’s a very good thing indeed.

Tim Casson kicks us off with a fantasy-meets-history approach in ‘The Crone at the Meadow Gate’, wherein a bitter, curmudgeonly Russian shoemaker takes on a young new apprentice – a boy who, as a baby, was spirited away by the mythical woodland race of creatures known as the Leshi – by the name of Grigori Rasputin. As the old man falls into a mire of alcoholism and brutal, systematic abuse of his wife and the boy, a darker future is mystically revealed via the boy’s supernatural abilities – one that promises the appearance of a real-world tyrant. Casson’s story is a quick, if occasionally harsh, read made absorbing by its persistent promise of the central character’s impending comeuppance. Admittedly, it could work thematically even without the historical context, but the final revelations are undoubtedly all the more weighty for it, and it ends with a real stinger of a final line, setting the issue as a whole off on a great start.

Chris Barnam’s ‘Ravello Steps’ follows up admirably, filled from the start with skilfully realised European flavour (it takes place in Italy) as the male half of a holidaying couple begins to question the odd behaviour of his partner, Elizabeth. While exploring the neighbourhood, our protagonist locates a villa which he believes may belong to Elizabeth’s aunt and decides to pay her a visit. Snooping around the property, he becomes witness to a scene straight from a twisted creature feature – and one that may or may not explain the random disappearances and conduct of his lover. Going into too much detail would completely spoil such a short tale, but Barnam manages to pack an impressive amount of atmosphere, skin-crawling horror and dark, twisted carnality into just a few pages. It’s shudder-inducing without being too grim, and should easily please anyone with a fondness for some monster madness.

Stephen Hargadon’s ‘World of Trevor’ steps out of the realm of the fantastical and into the everday with its story of a local pub-dwelling oddball selling the requisite bootleg tapes, one of which our narrator procures in an effort to shoo the intrusive, babbling individual by the name of John – who also seems to have frequent arguments with an imaginary individual by the name of Trevor. Utilising the horror trope of disturbing, ghostly sounds embedded on tape, ‘World of Trevor’ builds at a steadily discomforting pace to a well-delivered punch at the end, lending its own particular riff on psychosis via the all-too chirpy tone of a narrator who remains likeable despite (or perhaps, for) his unavoidable predilection for the demon drink. This appears to be Stephen’s first published story, and no doubt a sign of good things to come from him.

Sarah Read takes a similarly real-world situation and drops squarely into the psychological trauma arena with her entry ‘Golden Avery’, as we follow the narration of an unnamed female college student and her experiences with her roommate, Avery. Having grown up as an obese child, our protagonist has felt the ribbing ire of Avery, who regularly teased and berated her for her weight and appearance during their time at summer camp. Now that they’ve reached college age, the tables have turned and Avery is the one in the throes of self-loathing, despondent at her ever-increasing waistline and seeming inability to do anything about it, while her erstwhile prey enjoys a svelte figure. The duo soon hatch a shocking and ill-fated plan to take care of Avery’s self-image issues – but no matter what you do, there’s always something we don’t like about how we look, isn’t there? ‘Golden Avery’ is nicely written, sporting a narrative tone that sits incongruously against what actually takes place to nicely unsettling effect. It’s a quick entry that becomes suitably grim and disturbing in the final moments, but feels disappointingly more like a brief revenge fantasy against “fat-shaming” than anything more thoughtful by the time it’s over.

‘The Hanged Man’, up next, comes from the pen of Steve Rasnic Tem, and relates the story of husband and father Roger – a man still inexplicably living his daily life despite having committed suicide by hanging. Addicted to repeating the act in order to ease a constant sense of disassociation, Roger struggles to maintain both his family life and his physical condition – his head lolls uselessly on hopelessly broken vertebrae while the rest of him pursues a course in gradual breakdown. In keeping with the other entries in this issue of Black Static, Tem’s story is also a very short one, but what it lacks in length it makes up for in measures of sadness and regret. Ultimately, it’s a heartfelt examination of actions that we’re simply unable to take back, the ever-shining beacon of hindsight and the importance of living up to responsibility. It also has more to say about our choices beyond that of suicide, touching on issues of addiction and weakness, and the folly of “just this one time.” There’s little outwardly horrific (beyond of course the idea of a barely functioning dead man going about his everyday business) on show, but more of a focus on a very personal kind of fear that balances out well against the other offerings of this issue.

Finally, this issue’s showpiece (backed up by some excellent cover artwork by Ben Baldwin) arrives in the form of Paul Meloy’s aforementioned ‘Reclamation Yard’. Longest in length of the fiction works here, it’s also the most imaginatively expansive as it recounts the tale of a young boy named Elliot who is forced to face the world-eating nemesis of his father’s written stories, backed up by an army of grotesque yet protective creatures also borne of the same. With his dad’s mental health deteriorating in an aggressive Alzheimer’s-like manner, Elliot discovers that the Lovecraftian antagonist – the Junction Creature – might also be responsible for the affliction, with his father’s weakened creative mind no longer able to contain it. With the help of a young girl in a hot air balloon and a mystic trinket in the form of a kaleidoscope, Elliot sets out for an apocalyptic face-off with the beast.

There are so many ideas packed into ‘Reclamation Yard’ that it’s a wonder that Meloy didn’t decide to take the story to full novel length. Its creativity is consistently captivating, with the wild amalgam of unusual creatures acting as defenders of Elliot and his family all coming to life with admirable aplomb. The utilisation of fantastical imagery such as the girl in the hot air balloon, the magical kaleidoscope MacGuffin, and the climactic battle against all-encompassing evil evoke a young adult fantasy tale by way of Guillermo del Toro, all the while feeling touchingly earnest in its presentation of a son’s literal (or not – you decide) fight to maintain the stature and memory of a father almost lost to him due to this insidious force. It’s a strong showing of heart, and while admittedly more saccharine than I would generally prefer, the strength of Meloy’s vision and sense of wonder can’t be denied. ‘Reclamation Yard’ is highly recommended, even to those who would normally shy away from darker fiction.

An extended selection of reviews of books from horror legend Ramsey Campbell, backed up by a Q&A with the man himself fronts up the usual smorgasbord of well considered DVD/Blu-ray and literature reviews, though reviewer Tony Lee gives an extremely unfavourable and slight opinion of last year’s fantastic The Borderlands. Why, Tony, why???

4 1/2 out of 5

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Gareth Jones

Horror is my jam, yo.